Almanac Obituary: Tommy Gemmell
He was one of the most redoubtable personalities who ever illuminated Scottish football. But there was a lot more to Tommy Gemmell than prizes, plaudits, or personal glory.
As one of the fabled group of Lisbon Lions, who steered Celtic into the history books after helping them become the first British club to lift the European Cup in 1967, he was an integral part of a team which forged an immutable bond with their serried manager, Jock Stein. The side had grown up in an industrial heartland which no longer exists, within a 30-mile radius of Parkhead, as sons of dockers, colliers, plumbers and labourers, and they forged the sort of loyalty which will probably never be witnessed again.
As Gemmell once said: “Jock lied to me every day for almost two years. He ditched me from the first team on the day on a cup final. He dropped me into the reserves without any warning. He thought nothing of berating me in front of my colleagues.
“He booted me out of the club I loved. He deprived me of the opportunity of saying a last farewell to the supporters I rated – and still rate – as the best in the world.
“I loved that man.”
The words reflected the often complex comradeship and camaraderie, which existed among that Celtic collective, exemplified by Gemmell, who has died at the age of 73 after a long illness. He was everything one would have expected from a man of his generation: uncompromising, occasionally reckless, disinclined to turn the other cheek and, although he rarely went looking for trouble, he took no prisoners when it occurred, whether in the colours of his club or his country.
But he was also passionate about his football, proud of the fashion in which he and the rest of the Stein collective earned their place in history, and forgiving about some of the less palatable episodes in his career where he leapt to the defence of teammates and paid the price.
Gemmell, who was born in Motherwell, began his career at Coltness United, but was never destined to linger for long in the lower leagues. He emerged at a time when the Old Firm had scouts scouring every pitch in the west of Scotland for talented performers and he joined Celtic in 1961, rapidly earning a reputation as one of the toughest-tackling, aggressive players of his generation.
During the next decade, his cv was remarkable: he was part of the great Stein squad, which dominated their domestic circuit and transferred that supremacy onto the European stage as none of their predecessors had done.
In 1967, the “Lisbon Lions” had established the sort of symbiosis which happens rarely in any sport. They were an idiosyncratic ensemble, featuring bellicose warriors such as Gemmell and Billy McNeill, but also the dextrous, wonderfully-skilful Jimmy Johnstone and the cerebral Bobby Lennox and Jim Craig, whose contribution meant the team possessed ample reserves of brains, brawn and brotherhood.
It added up to a fearsome combination for any opponents and, even though Celtic didn’t start the 1967 tournament as favourites, they indelibly stamped their impression on everybody they met, including Inter Milan in the final.
The match has become the stuff of legend and mass celebrations are being arranged to commemorate it in May. Sadly, they have to proceed without several of the participants, but Gemmell’s contribution was immense, as it was in so many important contests.
With his side trailing against their Italian rivals, he ignored team orders to stay in defence and scored a quite magnificent goal, which seized the momentum for the Scots, who subsequently triumphed 2-1. It remains one of the halcyon events in his nation’s sporting history, but there wasn’t time for him to rest on his laurels. Instead, he was part of the Scotland team, which defeated reigning world champions England 3-2 at Wembley: another occasion when he demonstrated his quality at the highest level.
Indeed, some people questioned why he only gained 18 international caps, after making his debut in 1966, but Gemmell was typically honest about the reason. As he remarked: “Mr Stein restricted my appearances for Scotland. No doubt, a lot of people will find it difficult to comprehend or even believe that statement. But, take it from me, it’s the truth.”